Budget Cuts: Did Alabama’s Closure of 31 DMV Offices Violate The Equal Protection Clause? By Axel Buchwalter

Budget Cuts: Did Alabama’s Closure of 31 DMV Offices Violate The Equal Protection Clause?

By

Axel Buchwalter

On Sept. 30, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) announced the closure of 31 part-time driver’s licensing offices.[1] The closures were the result of an $11 million cut in appropriations to the ALEA.[2] While those 31 part-time locations where responsible for less than five present of Alabama Driver License transactions, their closures could pose a serious problem for some Alabama voters.[3]

Alabama is one of 31 states that have some form of voter identification laws in place.[4] Alabama’s voter identification law requires that voters present a valid photo ID to be eligible to cast a regular ballot.[5] Voters without a valid photo ID must cast a provisional ballot.[6] It is unsurprising then, that the majority of Alabamians use state issued driver licenses’ or ID cards to vote. It is important then, that every Alabama resident be able to easily obtain a state issued photo ID.

Disappointingly, the 31 office closures have left 28 counties without a location to obtain a state issued photo ID.[7] A major inconvenience for our states rural residents. But more worrying, the majority of these closures have occurred in counties located in Alabama’s Black Belt.[8] These counties are majority African American and home to Alabama’s poorest residents.[9] It is an open question then, if these closures might have an impact on the constitutionality of Alabama’s voter identification law.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly stressed that voting is of “fundamental significance under our constitutional structure.”[10] Yet, the right to vote is far from absolute. States maintain an active role in structuring voter regulations and elections.[11] It is compelling that “as a practical matter, there must be a substantial regulation of elections if they are to be fair and honest and if some sort of order, rather than chaos, is to accompany the democratic processes.”[12] However, states are limited in the restrictions or qualifications they may impose on the right to vote. The Equal Protection Clause “restrains the States from fixing voter qualifications which invidiously discriminate.”[13] The Court has been clear that restriction on “wealth, like race, creed, or color, is not germane to one’s ability to participate intelligently in the electoral process.”[14] But, that “evenhanded restrictions that protect the integrity and reliability of the electoral process itself” can be tolerated.[15]

Previously, the Court has been asked to evaluate whether voter identification statutes violate the Fourteenth Amendment. In Crawford v. Marion Cnty Election Bd., 553 U.S. 181 (2008) the court upheld an Indiana voter identification statutes that required individuals voting in-persons to present a particular form of government-issued photo identification.[16] The court applied Anderson’s balancing approach and evaluated whether the identified state interests justified the burden imposed on voters.[17] The court identified three state interests, election modernization, voter fraud, and safeguarding voter confidence as compelling reasons for burdening voters with identification requirements.[18] Interestingly, when asked to consider the laws burden on groups of voters who lacked photo identification the Court dismissed the issue as unsubstantiated, concluding that anyone without a proper photo ID could still cast a provisional ballot, that would ultimately be counted, assuming they traveled to the circuit court clerk’s office and executed the required affidavit.[19]

If the courts were asked to rule on the Alabama voter ID law the precedent setout in Crawford would be instructive. It is clear that courts are supportive of the states position that voter identification laws further a legitimate state interest. However, each restriction needs to be evaluated in conjunction with the burden imposed by the rule.[20] The Court has also shown the potential to consider whether a given restriction disproportionately effects a portion of the population. Given the newfound difficulty of obtaining a photo ID in the Black Belt it is an open question whether that burden has risen to the level of an equal protection violation in the eyes of the court. Regardless, it seems likely that a court will be called to make that factual determination shortly.

[1] ALEA Reallocates Personnel to District Driver License Offices, Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (Sept. 30, 2015), http://www.alea.gov/Home/wfFlyerDetail.aspx?ID=2&PK=ea439937-97c5-4ab6-894a-e0e27c6e8d91

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Wendy Underhill, Voter Identification Requirements | Voter ID Laws, National Conference of State Legislators (Oct. 6, 2015), http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/voter-id.aspx   

[5] Acceptable forms of ID include: a valid Alabama driver’s license or non-driver ID card, valid photo voter ID card or other valid ID card issued by any state or federal government, as long as it contains a photo, valid U.S. passport, valid government employee ID card with a photo, valid student or employee ID card issued by a college or university in the state, provided it includes a photo, valid U.S. military ID card containing a photo, valid tribal ID card containing a photo. Alternatively, voters can without a valid photo ID can still cast a regular ballot if they are identified by two election officials as an eligible voter, and bit sign a sworn affidavit. Ala. Code 1975 § 17-9-30

[6] If voting a provisional ballot, the voter has until 5:00 PM on the Friday after the election to bring the required ID. Id.

[7] Kyle Whitmire, Voter ID and driver license office closures black-out Alabama’s Black Belt, AL.com (Sept. 30, 2015) http://www.al.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/09/voter_id_and_drivers_license_o.html

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Illinois State Bd. of Elections v. Socialist Workers Party, 440 U.S. 173, 184 (1979)

[11] Burdick v. Takushi, 504 U.S. 428, 433 (1992)

[12] Storer v. Brown, 415 U.S. 724, 730 (1974)

[13] Harper v. Virginia State Bd. Of Elections, 383 U.S. 663, 666 (1966)

[14] Id. at 668

[15] Anderson v. Celebrezze, 460 U.S. 780 (1983)

[16] Crawford v. Marion Cnty. Election Bd., 553 U.S. 181 (2008)

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

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